The Delusion of Enlightenment –
Avoiding Spiritual False Consciousness

They know not what they do, but they are doing it.

Karl Marx, Capital
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Here’s something that no one likes to talk about. If you look closely at any spiritual, religious, or philosophical tradition, you will find shocking moments of hypocrisy. You’ll find gurus who swindle money, philosophers who take advantage of their students, and ministers like Ted Haggard who preached against adultery and homosexuality while simultaneously seeking the services of a male prostitute.

Not all spiritual and philosophical teachers fall into this category. But so many do that it’s worth asking: why do so many so-called “enlightened” teachers engage in such spectacular acts of hypocrisy?

Karl Marx has one answer.  He didn’t care much for spiritual or personal growth (recall his famous line: “religion is the opiate of the masses”).   But the Marxist tradition offers a way of understanding the problem at the root of this pattern.  It arises from what many Marxists call “false consciousness.”

In Marxist theory, “false consciousness” has to do with a false perception of the reality of social or economic relations.   The worker who toils away at a factory all day thinking that it’s his duty or thinking that the capitalist system is the natural order of things suffers from “false consciousness.”  He lives in a state of ideological delusion – a state that conceals the true nature of his conditions.

You don’t need to agree with Marx to benefit from this philosophical tool:  the insight goes beyond capitalism.  The big idea is that without careful examination, our beliefs about who we are can easily slide into delusion.  Our ideology can mask reality.

Believing you have reached an elevated state of spiritual consciousness and enlightenment is particularly dangerous.   This ideology of spiritual enlightenment works like a set of blinders.  It conceals all those shadowy parts of ourselves that we like to keep in the periphery.

My guess is that this is what leads so many spiritual masters down the path of dishonesty and corruption.   They take on the ideology of enlightenment.  They begin believing that they exist in a higher spiritual order.  Soon, they lose sight of their imperfections and essential human shortcomings.

It would be great if spiritual false consciousness only affected a handful of corrupt leaders.  But on some level, all of us have the potential to slip into this trap.  The more we think we’ve achieved some sort of exalted religious state, the more we open ourselves to the delusions of false consciousness.

For this week’s experiment, let’s practice catching ourselves in moments of spiritual false consciousness.  See what happens when you let go of any idea that you are somehow more enlightened, spiritual, or philosophical than others.

Here’s the practice:

Step 1Catch Yourself Riding the Spiritual High Horse – As you go through the day notice anytime you slip into the delusion of spiritual enlightenment.  Sometimes this delusion will be self-directed.  It might arise in judgmental thoughts like, “Wow, I am way more spiritually realized than that guy.”  At other times it will be directed toward others.   You might see it in judgments like, “that spiritual teacher is so enlightened.”  These are indicators that you’re buying into the ideology of enlightenment – that the blinders of spiritual false consciousness have distorted your vision.

Step 2Get Present – If enlightenment or spiritual realization is anything at all, it certainly isn’t a concept or a thought.  It’s not a theory, a status, or anything that could be captured in words.  If it exists at all, it’s more likely to arise as a state of being.   It’s just the simple act of living deep and fully in the moment.  It’s a state that arises when mental and emotional blockages dissolve and we experience the pure awareness of being here now.   So the next time you catch yourself reveling in your or another’s enlightened status, go deeper.  Go beneath the words and concepts.  Go beyond the delusion of spiritual false consciousness.  See if you can experience the reality of this moment.

What do you think?  Do you ever get trapped in the delusion of spiritual false consciousness?

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  1. I totally agree with you, Nate, about Step 2 — Get Present. “A state of Being” is all enlightenment is. But the fact remains that people do have varying degrees of consciousness, both interpersonally and intra-personally. Recognizing this fact is not necessarily “spiritual false consciousness;” it can, in fact, be an act of discernment. To recognize when I, or others, are acting in a more or less conscious manner can be an ah-ha moment, as long as we don’t solely identify ourselves as enlightened ones. True, levels of consciousness are only relatively real but discerning them can actually help us from becoming victims of false spiritual consciousness. At least that’s how I see it.

    • Nate says:

      Hey David,

      Thanks so much for your thoughts on this. I definitely agree with your point and think the term “consciousness” is still useful. What I have seen in myself and others, however, is a tendency to use the mask of consciousness to avoid facing various parts of ourselves. What then happens is the consciousness persona begins to block rather than enable further growth.

      So maybe there’s a middle ground — a space where we can acknowledge varying levels of consciousness but avoid slipping into the trap of “false consciousness.”

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